Strangely, "127 Hours" serves as a persuasive tourism promotion for getting away from it all and going exploring in middle-of-nowhere Utah.
Really, it does, even after James Franco finds himself trapped beneath a boulder for -- that's right -- 127 hours while exploring caves and canyons by himself.
Director Danny Boyle, working again with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "28 Days Later") as well as Enrique Chediak ("28 Weeks Later"), makes this remote, sun-drenched part of the country look dazzling -- appealing in its vastness, dramatic in its severity. And even though the movie is about a man who's stagnant for five days straight, Boyle makes the story vital and vibrant in his signature kinetic style.
Despite the physical restrictions of this real-life tale, the way Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy tell it are boundless. "127 Hours" skips around in time and place. It takes us outside the canyon and deep within one man's isolation and fear.
Before the accident, Franco's character, 26-year-old adventurer Aron Ralston, enjoys a spontaneous, playful afternoon with a couple of cute young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he meets along the trail. This allows us to see Aron at the height of his charm and dangerous cockiness, but it also adds tension by delaying the inevitable. We know the fun can't last: Something horrible is going to happen, we just don't know when, and the expectation is agonizing.
The trouble is that, once the accident does happen -- and it happens so abruptly, it'll make you jump for the first of many times -- Aron is all alone. That whole hike-with-a-buddy concept seems to have eluded him on this particular day back in 2003. Even though this daring party boy has tons of skill, experience and knowledge of the terrain, there's no one to help him when he slides down a narrow slot and finds his right arm pinned by a giant rock.
In this space, no one can hear him scream.
And so "127 Hours" becomes the one-man Franco show, and the actor gives a tour-de-force performance. He's essentially on screen by himself the entire time. Aron's family and friends appear in brief flashbacks and, as time and hope pass, hallucinations. But for a long while, between attempts to extricate himself, he stays occupied by videotaping his ordeal, joking with himself and even staging a makeshift talk show in which he plays both questioner and guest.
"127 Hours" allows Franco to display every bit of his range: his gift for effortless comedy, which he showed off in a scene-stealing role as an irreverent pot dealer in "Pineapple Express," as well as the sort of subtle but deep despair that earned him a Golden Globe and made him a star in the 2001 "James Dean" TV movie. The fact that he's photogenic as hell doesn't hurt, but "127 Hours" isn't shy about detailing his mental and physical deterioration, as you would expect from the director of "Trainspotting."
Similarly, Boyle graphically reveals the film's climax, the drastic measure Aron takes to free himself. Even if you've read his book, which was the basis for the script, or you're familiar with his story, you'll still find the moment powerfully tense -- if you can stand to watch it.
Perhaps the moral is a bit facile: Connect with people now, tell them you love them because you never know whether this day may be your last. But it certainly never hurts to hear that, and Boyle and Franco present the sentiment artfully and thrillingly enough to give it real punch.
"127 Hours," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images. Running time: 90 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.